One of the most interesting adventures I undertook while working as a tour director in Alaska was shadowing a tour along the Dalton Highway. In those days, the cruise line I worked for offered guests the opportunity to travel this long and lonely stretch of road, which runs from Fairbanks all the way to the very top of the state. In my last year of tour directing, I was lucky enough to be chosen to tag along on this adventure, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.
The Dalton Highway was constructed to supply and maintain the Alaska Pipeline, which it largely parallels. It’s also known as the “haul road” because much of its traffic consists of trucks and other supply vehicles.
In addition to being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a part of the world that very few people ever visit, my trip along the Dalton Highway was special for another reason. It was this tour that had brought my parents to Alaska back in 2008 when my mom surprised my dad with an Alaska vacation for their 25th anniversary. Since Dad had worked in the oil and petroleum industry for most of his life – he owned a small heating oil business and later inspected commercial oil tanks – Mom had chosen an itinerary that included an up-close-and-personal look at the famous Alaska Pipeline. Their trip was led by a tour director named Adam, and when they got home my mom was raving that she’d found me the perfect post-college job. After a year of interviews I was hired as a tour director, and two years after that I found myself following in my parents’ footsteps traveling the Dalton Highway.
For today’s Flashback Friday, I want to share some of my favorite photos and a few notes from this unique road trip. I hope you enjoy them and that they encourage you to think outside the box when planning your own Alaska vacation!
Day 1: Arrival in Deadhorse, Alaska on Prudhoe Bay
The first day of my Dalton Highway adventure involved a flight from Fairbanks to Deadhorse on a small commuter plane.
While I’m usually a little nervous on smaller planes, the landscapes outside the window were a fantastic distraction. We flew over the wild and imposing Brooks Range…
… which soon gave way to the vast, flat tundra of the North Slope.
Soon, we landed in Deadhorse, the unfortunately-named oil field community at the very top of the state. The first thing I noticed was how flat, open, and austere it was. Deadhorse is an oil camp, and as such there aren’t a lot of frills to be seen. This was immediately obvious when we arrived at our hotel, the Arctic Caribou Inn.
Built to house oil workers but open to tourists in the summer, the Arctic Caribou Inn wouldn’t adorn many Instagram feeds, but it was clean, comfortable, and had an incredibly tasty buffet. It felt like someone had welded together a bunch of shipping containers and turned it into a spartan hotel. I liked it immediately.
My fellow “shadows” – tour directors who were riding along on the tour to learn the ropes from the veteran tour director leading it – and I had a couple of hours to kill until the entire group arrived, so we took a walk around Deadhorse to check out the lay of the land.
We didn’t find a lot of beauty, other than the wispy-clouded sky and the colorful tundra, but it was a fascinating place to be. It was like nowhere else I’d ever seen, and it felt the farthest thing from a tourist destination because it really isn’t.
We passed lots of machinery that had been specially adapted to doing work in a hostile and often frozen environment, including rigs whose giant tires were filled with liquid to traverse the tundra.
Later that evening, the entire group took a guided tour of the oil fields.
… which included a stop at the Arctic Ocean.
There, we were able to step into the frigid water. This was lucky because polar bear sightings often make putting even a toe into the water off-limits.
While I’m sure some people were tempted to take a full dive into the Arctic, I was content to stay ankle-deep. That water was cold!
After our tour, we returned to our cozy, barebones rooms at the Arctic Caribou Inn to rest up for our long trip down the Dalton Highway!
Day 2: Deadhorse to Coldfoot
The next day, we set off down Alaska’s Dalton Highway! I was excited for our adventure to begin. The first part of our journey traversed the wide, lonely, flat expanses of the North Slope. Soon after leaving Deadhorse, we were fortunate enough to glimpse some wild musk ox off in the distance.
Afterward, the scenery consisted of little more than miles and miles and miles of gently rolling tundra.
We stopped occasionally for bathroom breaks and to stretch our legs, and at one point our driver and tour director led us out onto the tundra to explore it more closely. We even got to feel permafrost, which can go down as far as hundreds or thousands of feet into the earth!
True to the rusticity of the adventure, at our rest stops the women got to use the bathroom on the motorcoach or the outhouses, if there were any. The men got to use nature! I’m honestly not sure who had the better deal.
As we traveled south, we caught frequent glimpses of the Alaska Pipeline winding its way toward its terminus at Valdez on the Prince William Sound.
The pipeline really is a remarkable feat of engineering, and I was grateful for the opportunity to see it in action. The main section of the pipeline is roughly eight hundred miles long and runs over, through, and under some of the most isolated and unforgiving terrain on the planet. Its builders had to contend with and account for the risk of earthquakes, the presence of permafrost and extreme weather, migratory patterns of various species, and more to ensure that oil could safely make its way from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.
Due to the risk of earthquakes, the pipeline zigs and zags rather than running in a straight line. It runs more than half its distance above ground, mainly due to permafrost, and below ground elsewhere.
We also passed by the occasional pump station, where the crude oil is propelled along on its journey south. Talk about a lonely place to work!
A few hours later, we began to see the foothills of the Brooks Range looming in the distance…
… and soon we were winding our way through mountain passes. The weather changed for the worse, with rain and clouds adding to foreboding nature of our surroundings.
It was hard to get good photos of the mountains through the motorcoach windows and general gloom, but it was an impressive place nonetheless. I was grateful for the skill of our driver because some of those mountain passes – like the infamous Atigun Pass the crosses the Continental Divide – were no joke.
Thankfully, despite the weather and the rough roads we continued down the highway without incident. We got to pause at some really beautiful photo areas, and our lunch of packed sandwiches and Capri Sun pouches tasted even better for being consumed outdoors in such a unique and impressive place.
The drive sure does a number on your vehicle, though! Our coach was caked in a thick blanket of mud by the time we finished our day.
Our stop for the night was Coldfoot Camp, which is essentially a big truck stop and service center about halfway between Deadhorse and Fairbanks. These were the first services we’d seen since leaving Deadhorse over 240 miles before. Despite its modest appearance, Coldfoot also serves as an important base for outdoor adventures in the Brooks Range and is a good jumping-off point for Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Our home for the night was the Slate Creek Inn, now apparently renamed the Inn at Coldfoot Camp. As you can see, she wasn’t exactly a looker…
But, again, she was clean and comfortable and the rusticity only added to the experience.
My personal favorite part was the plywood-wrapped bathroom. It wasn’t the most luxurious shower of my life, but it sure felt great after a long day on the road.
That night, we had another fantastically delicious dinner buffet across the street from the Slate Creek Inn. While I can certainly understand the appeal of fancy restaurants and five-star dining, there’s something about hearty, blue-collar fare that satisfies you in all the best ways.
Day 3: Coldfoot to Fairbanks
After sleeping like the dead in cozy Coldfoot, it was time for our last day on the Dalton Highway. Although the weather wasn’t much better for this leg of the trip, the scenery more than made up for it.
We descended out of the Brooks Range and within an hour and a half of leaving Coldfoot found ourselves crossing the Arctic Circle. It was perhaps the most exciting stop of the day; although we had technically crossed the Arctic Circle on our flights to Deadhorse, there was something different about doing so by land. It definitely felt like a bucket list moment.
Continuing south, we passed through some gorgeous landscapes before stopping at the Finger Mountain wayside. There, we found panoramic views of the breathtaking Alaskan wilderness…
… including glimpses of Finger Rock, from which the area gets its name.
Eventually, though, we had to continue on our way. As we got closer and closer to Fairbanks, the landscapes started to look more familiar. We had left the unforgiving expanses of the North Slope and rugged peaks of the Brooks Range behind to travel through the heart of the 49th State.
Our lunch stop was the Yukon River Camp, another modest frontier truck stop where we were served a good meal and regaled with tales of bear break-ins.
After lunch, it was smooth sailing into Fairbanks with only a quick stop at the Arctic Circle Trading Post to browse the gift shop and use the “deluxe outhouses.”
Even though we had only been on our Dalton Highway adventure for a couple of days, there was still an element of culture shock upon returning to civilization. While Fairbanks is by no means a large city, it still seemed massive and cosmopolitan compared to what we had experienced traveling through the northern wilderness. The Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Conference Center, where the tour guests would be staying, was positively palatial considering where they’d slept the night before in Coldfoot, and it felt strange to be suddenly surrounded by all the lights, sounds, and activity of a city.
Driving the Dalton Highway in Alaska was one of the most interesting and unique experiences I had while working in the Great Land. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to shadow that tour and see not only a different part of Alaska but the part that made my parents love it enough to encourage me to apply for a job there. Their trip up the Dalton Highway quite literally changed the course of my life, and I’m so glad I got to see it for myself.
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Read the Rest of the Alaska Month Posts:
The Ultimate Alaska Bucket List: 25 Can’t-Miss Adventures in the Last Frontier
Alaska Cruise FAQ’s: All the Alaska Cruise Tips You Need to Know!
Things to Do in Skagway, Alaska
The Ultimate 10-Day Alaska Itinerary
And Don’t Miss…
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